Sunday, September 29, 2013

 

Pore Old Blue


Hard as it is to believe for those of us who are involved in the business of amateur astronomy or who are at least Cloudy Nights addicts, astronomy is still a solitary occupation for some folks. I know for a fact, muchachos, that some of y’all don’t do much Internet astronomy beyond looking at the Sky and Telescope website and, of course, the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South.

In other words, you are not into the gossipy side of amateur astronomy. You don’t know or care pea-turkey about the rumors, obsessions, fads, and fancies found in places like the Cloudy Nights BBS, Astromart, the Yahoogroups, and Ice in Space. Your knowledge of what’s going on with the telescope makers is limited to what you see in the ads in Sky and ‘Scope or on a dealer’s webpage. Some of y’all don’t even belong to your local club, which is still a prime source of amateur astronomy information, WWW or no WWW.

Not that unwired astronomy is necessarily a bad thing. For every gram of wisdom dispensed on the above Internet forums, there are kilos and kilos of the stuff you find on the south pasture. That’s just the nature of Internet forums on any subject. However, if what you read on the Cloudy Nights don’t always get the details correct, you do get the broad strokes. Like the fact that Meade Instruments, the beloved “Old Blue” of American telescope companies, has been in serious financial difficulties for a couple of years and has just been sold to a Chinese company that is something of a cipher.

“So what, Unk?” Well, beyond the fact that I hate to see another American telescope maker bite the dust, I worry about those of us who are unconnected and have not got the word on Meade. Like the person seriously thinking of spending multi thousands of dollars on an LX850 rig. Of course, the Meade story might have a happy ending; the new owners might infuse enough cash that the company comes roaring back. But any number of Bad Things could still happen, and this is a time for looking before leaping when it comes to buying Meade telescopes. How did they get into such a jam? That is a kinda long story, but maybe I’ve got just enough time to tell it on this Sunday morning.

I reckon we ought to start at the beginning, back in 1972. Unk was still struggling along with his homebrew 6-inch Newtonian, but he was confident his ship would some in someday soon and that onboard it would be a Cave or a Unitron. So, despite being an essentially penniless undergrad, I still paid plenty of attention to the ads in Sky and Telescope (there was as yet no Astronomy Magazine). As ’72 wound down, and ’73 came in, Young Unk began noticing new, small ads from an outfit called “Meade Instruments.”

They weren't anything special, but since you tended to see the same old ads month after month back in them days —Jaegers ran basically the same ad for years—even small new ones stood out. Meade, it appeared, was just another company importing the cotton-picking Japanese refractors Unk and his buddies (wrongly) assumed were junk. Back then, “made in Japan” was synonymous with “crap,” strange as that may seem  now.

What Meade was was the dream of a young California engineer, a man a lot like Tom Johnson, who founded Celestron. John Diebel’s dream was to start a telescope company. John’s story, which I had the pleasure of hearing from him once, is one of those good, old-fashioned success stories Americans love. He started Meade on his kitchen table. Literally. The company didn’t stay in John’s apartment kitchen for long, though. Thanks to his drive and talent, it grew like Topsy.

What really got Meade rolling was that John Diebel soon began selling good eyepieces at good prices. The “Research Grade Orthoscopics” he imported from Japan were good then and they are good now, and eyepiece connoisseurs and collectors still seek them out. Mr Diebel followed the eyepieces with plenty of ATM stuff like finders, telescope tubes, primary mirror mounts, focusers, and suchlike. These accessories were not much better than what you could get from other sources, like University Optics, but they were competitively priced and Mr. Diebel made customer service a priority. That was rare in the astrobiz of the 1970s and is why most of his competitors stayed small and/or faded away.

By the end of the 1970s, Meade wasn’t just a player; they were out Edmunding Edmund and out Criterioning Criterion. As the 1970s ran out, Diebel and company (they’d incorporated as Meade a few years before), were selling a complete line of telescopes, Newtonians and refractors, including some rather impressive instruments. Their top Newtonians were excellent and not much different from the highly regarded Caves. If anything, they were more modern looking, and their quality was right up there with Tom C’s best. Meade had gone from being back in the pack to ruling the Newtonian roost as famous names like Cave, Criterion, and Edmund began a slow fade.

Diebel didn’t just stick to Newts, though. He’d begun with refractors and continued selling them. He hooked up with the same Japanese supplier who provided the components for Unitron’s scopes. Soon, Meade was marketing refractors that looked just like Unitrons, sometimes performed better than they did, and sold for less money. I was able to have a shoot-out between a 4-inch Unitron and its 4-inch Meade analog one year at TSP; the victor was the Meade by a hair.

Meade’s path to continued success was not assured, though. At the end of the 1970s, amateur astronomy was changing. The switch to smaller cars that began after the gas crunch of 1973 and the fact that amateurs were becoming more interested in taking pictures meant Celestron and its C8 were coming to dominate the market. The old-fashioned GEM mounted long focal length Newtonian was on its way out. They were difficult to use for astrophotography, and who wanted to try to pack an 8-inch f/7 Cave in a Ford Maverick?

Some of the old-line companies, like Star Liner and Optical Craftsmen, ignored the new reality and disappeared. Others, like Edmund and Criterion, recognized the warning signs and either left the scope business or turned it into a sideline. Criterion actually tried to compete in the new arena with an SCT of their own, the Dynamax. It was not a success, however, and the father and son who owned the company were smart enough to sell out just as the excitement over Halley was reaching a fever pitch. Meade? As the 1980s began, Meade was balanced on the edge of a knife.

What saved John Diebel’s company was that he embraced change. SCTs were the way to go, but, unlike Criterion, he didn't just try to copy the Celestron C8. What John did was make a good 8-inch SCT with some features the C8, which had remained static for a decade, lacked. This Meade SCT, the “2080,” with its snazzy blue tube, didn't just look more modern than the Orange Tube Celestron, it featured a major improvement, a worm gear drive in place of the spur gear system the C8 used. Amateurs took notice and began buying Meades.

The 1980s was a time of great promise for the scope business. That’s the way it seemed at first, anyhow. Halley’s Comet, the greatest astronomical event since, well, since the last time it flew by, was upon us and there seemed little doubt both Celestron and Meade would sell plenty of telescopes. Both companies had spent the first half of the decade in a costly features race that involved Super C8s and Super C8 Pluses and LX2s and LX3s and were ready to cash in on Halley mania. The sky was the limit, especially for Meade, who was catching up with and even surpassing Celestron.

With Halley was approaching, both Tom Johnson and John Diebel chose to sell the companies they’d built. Why? Don’t ask me, but maybe after years of hard labor they just wanted to enjoy life. And perhaps, as is the case with many engineers, they didn’t find managing nearly as much fun as creating.

Celestron went to Diethelm, a Swiss investment firm, and Meade to the Harbor Group, a similar U.S. company. What did both concerns have in common? They weren’t much interested in telescopes; they just wanted to make some quick bucks. At least Diethelm’s owner seems to have been somewhat interested in astronomy; there was no one like that at Harbor Group as far as I know.

The result was predictable. The prospect of Halley gold made it impossible for the companies to resist producing as many telescopes as humanly possible during the years of the comet’s approach. They wore out their work-forces, management, and equipment in the process, and came close to ruining both companies’ reputations. They also produced many more scopes than they could sell when Halley turned out to be a disappointment for the public. Would things have been different if Diebel and Johnson had still been on the job? I like to think they would have been.

When the comet had flown away, Meade and Celestron both had a lot of recovering to do. It took years for them to get their optical quality back to where it had been before the comet, till the beginning of the 90s, really. But that didn't stop them from introducing new telescopes. Meade’s big effort in the wake of Halley was the LX6, which the company was betting a lot on. This was the follow-on to the LX5, which came out just after the comet’s apparition in 1986.

The LX6 was that elusive “SCT of a new type,” which was to be the company’s flagship scope. What was so new about it? In addition to just about every feature you could pile onto a non-computerized telescope, it had f/6.3 optics. To this point, Meade’s amateur grade SCTs had all had f/10 optics. The LX6 would offer wider fields eyepiece for eyepiece for visual use and shorter exposure times for astrophotography. But amateurs just didn't buy the LX6 in numbers. Maybe partly because f/6.3 was too wild a departure from the tried and true, and maybe partly because it took Meade some years to get f/6.3 right. F/6.3 LX200s are usually good. LX6es? Not so much.

The end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s was probably the low point for Meade. They were struggling along, barely keeping their heads above water. The situation wasn’t any better at Celestron. Everybody who wanted a scope had bought one during Halley; the market was oversold. The only solution Diethelm and Harbor could come up with was a merger. The SEC said “no,” however (a couple of times). What saved Meade, then? One thing:  John Diebel didn't like the way things were going and bought his company back.

The second Diebel era at Meade was the company’s golden age. They just went from strength to strength. The SCT that followed the LX6, the LX200, was an immediate and huge hit. It, like Celestron’s Compustar, which came first, was a computerized go-to telescope. The difference was that Meade was able to sell the LX200 at a price within reach of serious amateur astronomers—the Compustar was priced for schools and colleges. Meade also knew how to market the scope; Celestron and Diethelm didn’t seem to have a clue what to do with the Compustar.

One facet of the LX200 story I think is telling? It shows Meade’s true strength. Sure, they are an innovative company, they've always had plenty of good ideas. But they are at their best when they build on and improve someone else’s ideas, not when they are trying to break new ground themselves. They are at their worst when they try something out of left field, like the LX6 or RCX400. That is not a criticism. Meade has been incredibly successful in making complex ideas work.

Anyhoo, the LX200 was followed by a long string of successes:  the ETXes, the LX90, the LX50, and the LX200 GPS, all the way up to the turn of the century. Meade was clearly number one by the mid 1990s, and it looked to me as if Meade were just going to get stronger. As the company came to ever more dominate the telescope business, John and his colleagues took Meade public. I suspected we’d soon be reading Celestron’s obituary.

That’s what would have happened in a Zane Grey pulp. Old Blue would ride off into the sunset with a tip of its cowboy hat, victorious after one last shootout at the Orange Tube Corral. But real life is full of surprises, like the return of Celestron. Despite being mishandled by the company that bought them from Diethhelm, the often reviled Tasco, the company was very much back in the game by 2000. That year, Celestron introduced an SCT, the NexStar GPS, that suddenly made the LX200 seem old and outdated. And Celestron would soon be bought out again, by Chinese optics giant Synta, who had the cash they needed to make a real comeback.

How did Meade respond to that beautiful NexStar GPS? With the LX200 GPS. Which was a good enough scope. It just didn’t offer anything new or even a price break as compared to the NexStar. It was not unlike the original LX200 except that the old controller was replaced by an Autostar HC, and it used a GPS receiver, natch, to get time and position, just like the NexStar. The new LX200 was a good scope, just not a very exciting one.

Meade, like the Cylons, HAD A PLAN, apparently, and part of that plan did make them seem a lot like the dadgum toasters. They brought a lawsuit against Celestron, and to many of us amateurs it began to seem as if they were trying to sue their competitor out of business. Meade sued Celestron over the north and level alignment routine used by the NexStar GPS in alt-azimuth mode. Amazingly, they were able to convince a judge they should be awarded a patent for the idea of pointing a telescope north to align it.

I don’t know how much Meade spent on lawyers, but the return really wasn’t worth it near as I can tell. Yes, Celestron had to pay royalties to Meade, but only for a brief time. Celestron quickly developed a couple of non-infringing alignment methods. Most of all, the lawsuit lost Meade some of the respect of the community. They began to seem more like, yeah, the Cylons than the Rebel Alliance, to mix a metaphor.

I didn’t much like Meade’s sue ‘em tactics, but I was fully onboard for the second part of their plan: a truly revolutionary SCT, the RCX400. When I heard about it for the first time in ’05, I was gobsmacked. It was Meade’s biggest leap since the old LX6. But even moreso. The RCX would be built around an optical design that reduced coma. It would be an f/8 instead of an f/10. The OTA would feature motorized focusing AND collimation. There’d be a built in dew heater. There would be USB ports in addition to serial ports. What Meade was promising us was all the things amateurs had been asking for in an SCT for years.

What did I think of the RCX when I got my hands on one in 2006? Mostly I was impressed. I was a speaker at the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party, and the Meade rep who was there with a spanking new 10-inch RCX 400 allowed me to use the scope all night long one evening. The images were extremely impressive, as was the go-to accuracy. I was purty happy with the motorized focusing (which moved the corrector forward and back) once I got the hang of which buttons to mash.I did wish  Meade had gone to a higher grade of motors than their usual slot-car jobs for this premium SCT. When you were slewing the RCX at high speed, it sounded like a weasel with tuberculosis. The mount fit and finish could have been a hair better, too. All things considered, though, I wanted one. I predicted Meade would have a big hit on their hands.

Much as Unk hates to admit it, he was wrong. Why? Two reasons. First of all, the telescope got some bad press. Instead of calling the RCX design a “reduced coma SCT,” someone in the company, probably a dadgum pencil pusher in marketing, insisted on calling it an “advanced Ritchey Chretien.” It was clearly not of that design, and Meade was promptly sued by a group of r/c makers. Meade lost the suit, and while they only had to pay token damages, their reputation was taken down another notch.

What really killed the RCX, though, was QA problems. Many telescopes were dead out of the box or failed quickly. This was a bad problem for a scope that was the most expensive SCT the company had ever sold. The usual culprit was the focus/collimation system, which was executed way too cheaply. There were other problems, too. In fact, just about everything except the optics could be problematical with the RCX.

Even the folks who had RCXes that worked well were getting skittish. If something bad happened to the telescope’s complex electronics, you didn't have an option other than getting Meade to repair it. If, years down the road, Meade stopped fixing RCXes, you were the one who would be in a fix. The mount and tube were tightly integrated, with the focuser electronics being in the base. You couldn’t easily remove the OTA from the fork and put it on a German equatorial mount as you could any other SCT.

Why did Meade drop the ball on the RCX? Bit off more than they could chew, I reckon. It was a design that was brilliant in many ways, but also complex. To work well, corners could not be cut. The problem was that Meade’s resources were no doubt being well and truly stretched. It was now really too expensive to make telescopes in California.

Following John Diebel’s second retirement, Meade began to have more and more financial difficulty, which was probably abetted by its a-little-too-late decision to move production to Mexico. Yes, that sprawling and famous Irvine plant featured at the front of every Meade catalog was closed. It took a while for Meade to get it together south of the border, but it appeared they would. I know I was mightily impressed by the LX200 ACF SCT my Chiefland buddy Mike Harvey bought. The ACF incorporated reduced coma optics like the RCX (but at f/10), and I was just blown away by the images.


Despite rumors of a financial melt-down, it seemed like business as usual at Meade. They announced two brilliant sounding new products, the LX800 GEM and the LX80 combo alt-az/equtorial mount. I thought both could be game changers. GEMs are fashionable, and other than the abortive Max Mount project, Meade hadn’t done much in that area for years other than the uber cheap LXD55/75. The LX800 might be just the ticket for imagers, especially with its Starlock system, which integrated go-to and guiding, and would supposedly make both things easier and better than ever. And iOptron had shown amateurs wanted “side by side” alt-az rigs like the LX80. I predicted the LX80 would take astronomy by storm at a price well under 1000 dollars.

Things at Meade were only OK on the surface, however. Both mounts were released before they were ready. The LX800 was quickly recalled because it didn’t work at all. The LX80, which I’d looked forward to? My good buddy Jack Huerkamp got one, and I was able to try it at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I was terribly disappointed. Way too much play in the gears. A tripod head that was too weak (several owners had the thing break and send the mount crashing to the ground). A persnickety Autostar controller. After almost a year, Meade re-released the LX800 as the LX850, which appeared to work fine, and announced plans to fix the LX80. Unfortunately, time had run out for Meade as Meade.

A few months back, word came that Meade was looking for a buyer, seriously looking for a buyer. As in, if they were not bought out operations might have to cease. At first, it looked like Meade was going to the Chinese firm JOC. I thought that would be a great match, since that company's U.S. subsidiary is Explore Scientific, headed by Scott Roberts, one of the talented folks who made the old Meade tick.

Alas, ‘twas not to be.  It appears Meade has been purchased (“merger” is the term the Meadesters are using) by another Chinese company, Ningbo Sunny. No, I hadn’t heard of ‘em either. It seems they have some optical expertise, at least in the microscope realm, producing, judging by their web page, some pretty sophisticated looking instruments. Telescopes? That is a different matter. Near as I can tell, what they make are the sorts of scopes you see for sale on the fraking eBay. You know, “Red Telescope, Green Telescope, Blue Telescope.”

I sure hope Ningbo doesn’t just want the Meade name, something to slap on dimestore telescopes, much the way the current owner of Tasco slaps that name on their pitiful junk. What gives me hope is that Synta and JOC have shown there is an at least somewhat profitable market for amateur telescopes in the U.S. With the economy slowly coming back, who knows? Celestron, afterall, didn’t start to pull out of their nosedive till they were bought by Tasco. Finally, the world of Chinese corporations is a strange one, with it very unclear who really owns whom or runs whom and who intends to do what.

In other words, y’all, we will just have to wait and see. I am hoping it won’t be long before the future course of Meade is clear. But you know what, muchachos? No matter what happens, John Diebel’s and Meade’s mark on amateur astronomy will be a long-lasting one. The LX200 alone sees to that. Me? I’m gonna go upstairs right now and pat my sweet little ETX, Charity Hope Valentine, on her pretty OTA.

Nota Bene:  Got comets on the brain thanks to the brouhaha over ISON? You might want to read Unk's take on the hairy stars if you haven't done so already...

Next Time:  Ode to Junior...

Comments:
Thanks for the excellent history lesson. Meade is too important to fail. Without Meade, tomorrow's amateur astronomers will have limited choices of capable and desirable telescope systems.
 
Thanks Mike. I am not too worried. The name "Meade" still has value...
 
Background information on Ningbo Sunny's parent company is at: http://www.irasia.com/listco/hk/sunnyoptical/annual/index.htm

I wonder what they're actually purchasing with the acquisition? Just the engineering expertise? Patents? (My cynical side thinks it might just be long focal length optics expertise they can use for their PRC military contracts)
 
By the end of the 1960s, pension funds,
insurance companies and individuals owned 67% of all the shares on the Share Market.
But today they are just minnows next to the global hedge funds that really control Britain's companies.
 
Thank you for the very insightful article, Uncle Rod. For amateur astronomy’s sake I hope for the best for Meade. I own and love a 7- and a 12-inch LX200GPS and was looking with interest at their announcements of the new “split-fork” 14”. They have demonstrated that it is possible to have an innovative and serious mass-produced telescope, and should things go wrong with them no one in the market seems ready to fill that niche – or perhaps even interested in that niche. Celestron is fine, but in this consumer’s observation they haven’t been quite as serious about the fork mount in the last decade (and have most recently given too much say to some “family-friendly” artistic designers they hired somewhere). Radical changes at Meade could mean that the serious alt-azimuthal catadioptric Cassegrain could go away entirely, and that in my opinion would be a blow to the hobby. Still, by and large Celestron was saved by the Chinese so there is hope for Meade. These Ningbo microscopes look top-notch to this former professional (never heard of them though), and perhaps it is good that they don’t have any telescope technology to speak of, so Meade’s can endure in the merger. Now, a well-executed RCX400-style split-fork 14” would be nice!
 
In my dealings with chinese manufacturing plants I can attest that that most factories have names like joy, happy, sunny. Also I've never worked with one that claimed to be publicly trade. While their english is broken. It isnt as bad as some I have seen. I typically won't work with them on the assumption of, "if you can't hire a decent translator, why should I work with you?"

Does this mean in my opinion meade is saved? I don't know. But from my observations. They could have been sold to someone much worse
 
Oh and ningbo... is probably the name of the town where the company is based. Google maps check? Yup. Its the town.

I would think under the circumstances you will see meads name put on scopes. But also look for other scopes under a different name pumped out by the company. Probably at similar quality.

As the above poster mentioned. If they male quality microscopes then they will probably keep the name and evolve the brand and quality. China is notoriously free market in Shenzhen and designs get stolen all the time. Ningbo might not be one of the chinese free market cities. If not, I'd imagine that's why they bought the brand. Patents don't male squat when 25 factories steal your designs.

I'm sure this ningbo city has good patent protection
 
Would love to know of the various refractor models that were giving Unitron a run for the money in the early 70's. I saw an 80's vintage 312 on an alt/az mount one time that had the push rods like a Uni vs. the worm gear on the slo mo control. Thanks, great read.
 
In addition to the Meade "Unitrons," some of the other crazy good scopes back than (or a little earlier) came from Goto and Royal Optical. One of the best? The insanely beautiful Tasco 20TE: http://www.cloudynights.com/topic/477702-early-fall-sky-tasco-20te/
 
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